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back to article WANTED: New head of crashingly expensive, error-prone and frankly cursed one-dole-to-rule-them-all system

Whitehall mandarins are deeply touchy about what historians may eventually consider to be one of the Tory-led coalition government's biggest domestic failures – the widely slammed Universal Credit benefits' system. In fact, that sensitivity around Universal Credit (UC) has led to the Department for Work and Pensions scurrying to …

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Annoying thing is

UC is so clearly a good idea and the right thing to do that it's all the more painful that you just KNOW the gov will make a right royal hash of it and we'll be consigned to a billion levels of bureaucracy and paperwork for the next century because of it.

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Re: Annoying thing is

Except it cannot possibly work. People's needs change so frequently and everyone's needs are so different, that putting a one-size model onto the whole population is unworkable.

Even assuming that there's a UC system, you still have sub-payments to be made. Do they qualify for disability allowance? Carers allowance? Housing Benefit? Is their housing benefit subject to bedroom tax? JSA? Working tax credits? This must be done separately for every single applicant, whose needs then change according to relationship status, children, part time or casual work, age, illness etc. Under UC it all then needs to remain up to date, via the PAYE system, in real-time. I know a bloke who administers the ancient PAYE system, and not only do most employers not submit real-time information, but most never will.

Since you're working out what each individual needs according to a range of different criteria and different allowances, why bother rolling them into one? Much cheaper and simpler to do a standard "what are you entitled to?" interview, then administer each payment individually as entitlement changes.

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Re: Annoying thing is

I know this comes from complete ignorance ... but why is it so complicated?

There's two parts to the system. An assessment application to calculate entitlements. That's pretty complicated, I'll allow.

But once you know the entitlement, all you have to do is pay it. Just give all the payees a basic account at one of the Government owned banks and send the bank a batch file of payment info to credit the accounts.

Next, world hunger

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Annoying thing is

It's to do with the nature of the contract, sub-contracting to sub-sub-contracting until the brain don't know what the body is doing, a bit like the brachiosaurs which kept a sizeable amount of its brain in its butt ..

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Actually

There's no evidence that UC is a good idea. It hasnt been worked through. IDS wont let it be worked through. Its a fluffy bunny idea that seems a good idea on the outside but hasnt been instantiated to a solution.

You should check out the pilot schemes for UC. Absolutely laughable.

The team building it though dont need a plan as they use 'Agile' techniques. Apparently the great thing about this is you dont need any requirements! No! What you do is keep building, changing and building until the users (whoever they may be) think its fine. Then Stop!

They've 'written off' 250million at the last NAO report.Written off is mandarin speak for lost, squandered or wasted. Nobody got told off for this.

UC has no clear strategy, plan, implementation. The solution to UC has no strategy, plan or implementation either. How can it?

This is a cost plus gravy train for all concerned. Whilst at the same time it isnt improving the benefits system or reducing cost.

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Re: Actually

It's the same mentality responsible for people being impressed because something had a 'computer chip' in it. Satisfied knowing a computer was on the job, nobody ever stopped to ask who programmed it, and why.

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Paris Hilton

Re: Actually

What kind of Tory downvotes an eminently reasonable statement?

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Re: Actually

I would hazard a guess and say it's the voting kind of Tory that would do such a thing. I have no evidence for that assumption other than decades of the voting kind of Tory being adamantly opposed to anything containing reason.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Actually

I believe they squandered most of that money _before_ going "Agile".

When using agile methodologies, you build what the user needs, rather that what the requirements say and you release it a little at a time so you get faster feedback. The assumption is that user needs change much more frequently than software requirements ever have. In an ideal world the requirements and the user's needs are the same, so I'm not sure why anyone is being snippy about it.

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FAIL

Election ahoy!

'The Register asked the DWP why it needed 12 months to seek out Shiplee's successor.'

Because if they moved any faster they'd run the risk of trying to get the whole UC disaster up and running while trawling for votes. This way, win or lose, UC is a non-issue for the time being. Politics at its most cynical though par for the course for IDS and the rest of this bunch of arse dildoes.

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Re: Election ahoy!

Yep, because paying people to do nowt, that works doesn't it?

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Re: Election ahoy!

Parliament has worked like this for the last 40 years, so yes it does work.

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IT Angle

It is meant to be this way

Having worked on many of these projects in the past, in the UK, I came to the following inescapable conclusions;

No team, or individuals can hope to this incompetent or intransigent by accident. This is the ulterior goal of the project. The entire process is to maximise the distribution of tax-payer cash (present or future) to politicians and their crony friends as is possible.

Stage 1; Define the project and allocate a budget 100 to 1000 times larger than that required for a similar private sector budget.

Stage 2: Give the top jobs to cronies and the plump contracts to outfits run by cronies. Make sure that the contracts are so vague that all the contractors need do is hold meetings and produce reports for the duration.

Stage 3: The long burn - burn through 70% of the budget doing absolutely nothing tangible.

Stage 4: Have a review and replace the head of the project. Possibly one or more contractors as well. (After all, there are many greedy crony friends who will happily indulge in mutual back scratching.)

Stage 5: The short burn - burn through the 20% of the budget.

Stage 6: Have a review, admit failings, 'lessons learned' and replace the head of the project. Announce budget overrun and allocate a further 50% extra budget.

Stage 7: repeat above but with a 50% shorter 'long burn'.

Stage 8: Replace Chief and main contractor who will valiantly attempt to bring in the project with insufficient funds, low moral and limited timescale. They may succeed but more likely the architecture will be "unfit for purpose."

Stage 9: Repeat entire process after election identically except for different cronies.

No wonder Putin's friends like the place so much.

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I'll take the job!

I can't guarantee to deliver the system but I'll commit to taking the salary and benefits until I get found out. So, no worse than the previous incumbents

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Re: I'll take the job!

No, no, no. Silly goose. If you're going to voluntarily put yourself into a position where you can't possibly succeed you always demand a HUGE pay and benefits increase over the last guy. By doing so you've turned the tables on your future employer and made the previous failures their fault for being cheap bastards and refusing to pay in accordance with the desired outcome of the job.

That's good career advice all the way around. Make previous failures the fault of the people who are still there to catch the blame. Laying the blame on the guy who already hit the road with his cut of the loot is less than useless. You've got to be a team player if you're going to make a great living at intentionally failing :)

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Surely

The first thing to do is simplify the various laws. Reducing complexity of tax law to begin with means taking less off people and reduces the costs of complying with the law (may even help the HMRC get things right once and a while). Then simplify what people can have and for what criteria. Less admin, less bureaucracy and less confusion is surely a better approach to begin with.

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Coat

Re: Surely

But that would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise - wasting taxpayers money on keeping yourself and your friends in the lifestyle to which you are accustomed.

And please, don't call me Surely (OK, OK...)

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Re: Surely

Surely, Shirley?

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I said this before .....

Complete nightmare. Trying to interpret law which is vague, unclear and much amended by subsequent Acts of Parliament, Case Law and individual officers judgements. With specific rules about dealing with over and under payments. And that's just one benefits system.

Multiply this by the number of different benefits - which all of course change with each budget or great new government idea and the problem just becomes too complex for anyone to get their head around.

Having said that, pay me a load of money and I'll do a stint before either they find me out or I have my next nervous breakdown.

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Re: I said this before .....

Just require them to put the algorithm in the legislation.

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Re: I said this before .....

"Having said that, pay me a load of money and I'll do a stint before either they find me out or I have my next nervous breakdown".

What could they possibly find out about you that would disqualify you to run a (deliberately designed) shambles like this?

Oh, I see - that you're competent. Now I get it.

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Happy

Wrong Country, Wrong People, Wrong Traditions

It is now clear to me why the UK has had so much trouble getting the tech industry to really catch on. You've got a shortage of Leadership Class Bullshitters.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of bullshitters over there. But they aren't very good at bullshitting. The giveaway is that you can plainly tell the bullshitters don't believe their own bullshit and that's the first step to successful bullshit, you've got to believe your own bullshit. If someone doesn't believe their own bullshit, why should anyone else believe their bullshit?

The lack of good bullshitters has apparently spread to your govt HR as well. A good bullshitter doesn't say 'We're aware the process can take a long time', that's bullshit bullshit. A good bullshitter says 'We are reassessing the qualifications for this post and are realigning our search to identify candidates with a more robust skill set that more accurately reflects the scope of the requirements our citizens demand and deserve'. That's good solid bullshit right there. The kind of bullshit you can take to the bank.

So get to it. Aim high, think low and if your bullshit candidate can't convince you the opposite is true then continue your search for better bullshitters. Don't stop until you've found someone so full of bullshit they physiologically incapable of leaving the post because they are 100% convinced their bullshit is the shit and any alternative is bullshit.

Fix your bullshit problem and you've fixed two major sources of the shit bullshit that's preventing the UK from having a seat at the great round table of bullshitters that drive the bullshit industry of tech bullshit.

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Re: Wrong Country, Wrong People, Wrong Traditions

@Don Jefe

Have a +1 simply for "That's good solid bullshit [...] you can take to the bank."

Have a +10 for the preceding sentence of World Class Bullshit.

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I wonder whether the quiet man of politics, is quietly crying himself to sleep at night?

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No. He quit crying after he passed out from all the drink required to maintain sanity.

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"I wonder whether the quiet man of politics, is quietly crying himself to sleep at night?"

I expect so. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, to try actually helping people in an environment like Whitehall and Westminster would drive Jesus to drink.

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Joke

Jesus was (is, shall be, always?) known to be a tippler and won great fame as an enabler. I'm not sure he's the best example.

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If Smith is genuinely trying to help anyone (other than himself) he's even more useless and deluded than he appears to be.

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Unhappy

*Theoretically* the idea seems reasonable.

Ultimately leading to an greatly reduced data volume of more accurate information.

And BTW WTF (outside of UK govt benefit claimants) gets paid every 2 weeks?

But then you get the implementation.

The UK benefit system has evolved over decades, as has the systems that support them.

You can bet theirs a bunch of IBM mainframes (and possibly an Fujitsu/ICL or two) in there, some Sun and other *nix and the latest layer of Windows servers.

BTW in the 1980's "Alvey" framework one of the projects was on "Knowledge based systems," It's goal, to have a dialogue with a user and work out a)Where they eligible for a benefit b)What those benefits might be and c) What level where they entitled to.

Note the real problems with the diagnosis are a) Rules change, so rule management is non trivial and b) Benefit entitlements interact in complex cris crossing ways. some enable others. some lock out others. .

So just co-ordinating the developers alone was going to be a nightmare (I don't thing COBOL people really do agile, but I could be wrong).

But I reckon Colin Campers comments have a fair bit to play as well.

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Re: *Theoretically* the idea seems reasonable.

Obviously rules change, any system generic enough should be able to take benefit rule changes in it's stride. We should not need a new IT system every time someone alters a policy!

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I worked as a consultant on a similar project in Jersey. Obviously much smaller and simpler than UC, and also although all the payments were made through the same system, it maintained separate identities for the different claims - nevertheless the same issues troubled this project as UC has suffered from namely.

1) ANY government project is a whole lot more complex than a similar one would be in the private sector - mostly because in the private sector, that tiny thing of little importance that adds significantly to the cost and complexity would be cut - with government project their hands are tied to they can't do that.

2) Government projects are usually far larger - you then run into the issue that no single person knows enough to design the system - you get high level people in to do it, who have no knowledge of the details and they come up with over-simplified designs that break down when analysts subsequently start working on the details.

3) Requirements are frequently politically driven and change more frequently and radically than private sector projects, where the senior management usually keep their eye on cost, risk and value assessments.

So it was easy to see that UC was going to be far harder to implement than initial estimates.

It doesn't change the fact that it's the right thing to do - if you claim 3 benefits you currently complete 3 different forms which generally ask the same questions, often in different ways - far better for both the claimant and the assessor to have just one form to deal with. Essentially the form is a conduit for information to flow from the claimant to the assessor - the simpler this process is the better.

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Good point

Thats a good point about the 3 forms. But UC (as a concept) hasnt got around to defining the 3 forms that can be coalesced into 1. And UC (the computer system) is never going to make that logical leap.

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@Notrub

All good points. I'd like to add another major one: all Government systems that pay out money are subject to relentless fraud attacks by very well organised and funded malfeasants.

People like to moan that "the private sector could do it much more quickly and cheaply" (where 'it' is anything and everything) forgetting that the private sector mostly produces systems that enable them to take your money, not the other way around.

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Headmaster

"relentless fraud attacks" that in reality do very badly.

so, '2+2=5', lets look at the figures for this shall we?

2010/11 - Fraud and Error - 2.1%, of which 0.8% is Fraud, there's also a 0.8% underspend due to error.

2011/12 - Fraud and Error - 2.1%, of which 0.7% is Fraud, there's also a 0.9% underspend due to error.

2012/13 - Fraud and Error - 2.1%, of which 0.7% is Fraud, there's also a 0.9% underspend due to error.

2013/14 - Fraud and Error - 2.0%, of which 0.7% is Fraud, there's also a 0.9% underspend due to error.

Fraud levels within the Benefits system are very low, and the value of it is relatively static.

That doesn't really add up to "very well organised and funded malfeasants" subjecting our benefits systems to "relentless fraud attacks" to me. Frankly, any of the fraud that I saw in my many years a benefits officer was at a very low level, and very badly thought out and organised.

(all figures from https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/fraud-and-error-in-the-benefit-system )

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Re: "relentless fraud attacks" that in reality do very badly.

@ Drem

Those fraud figures are for the successful frauds. There are many many more attempts that are prevented. Perhaps I should have used the phrase "relentless fraud attempts" - apologies for not being clearer.

(It's even at the level that we see 'old' frauds re-tried after a couple of years or so to see if we've stopped checking for them.)

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This may be very naive, but why not do it in bits?

Rather than launch straight into "universal" - start off with a system that can do one thing well, say unemployment benefit. When you sign up you put in your NI number etc etc, It checks if you are entitled, then sorts out the right amount. Then when that's working, look to add in another, e.g. child benefit. Rinse and repeat - gives realistic time scales and visible public "wins".

This also allows you to leave the really tricky/political dynamite issues (like disability) until you are sure the system works and is stable. If it does prove too tricky/unpopular, and it gets kicked down the road far enough that the next lot have to deal with it, at least there is something to show for the expenditure!

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Unhappy

@A Twig

"Rather than launch straight into "universal" - start off with a system that can do one thing well, say unemployment benefit."

Umm. Because 8 benefits with the simplest claimants was the phased roll out.

It's my understanding that the UK benefits system is really complex.

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Facepalm

Error-prone Universal Credit benefits' system ..

In the tradition of most Government IT projects, this one was bound to fail. After all if they did it right the one time, they would have to do it right always ..

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Anonymous Coward

It's a UK government IT project. They couldn't manage a relatively simple (compared to this) centralised medical records system, what chance was there they were ever going to manage this.

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